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Syrian regime okays peace talks amid skepticism

Syria’s government has agreed to attend a U.S.-Russian-brokered peace conference, according to Moscow. While this development might seem at first glance to be a step toward ending the civil war, strong skepticism persists on both sides.

Doubting that Damascus is serious and may be stalling while government forces make battlefield gains, the Syrian opposition has demanded guarantees that President Bashar Assad’s departure tops the agenda; Russia questioned whether the fragmented opposition is capable of negotiating with one voice.

The war has killed more than 70,000 people, and both sides are firmly entrenched in their positions and appear unwilling to compromise to stop the carnage and chaos engulfing the country.

“We are not willing to enter a tunnel with no guarantees of a light at the end of that tunnel,” said Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based Syrian opposition figure. “There’s still a lot of fogginess surrounding the talks and we are waiting for some answers,” he said in a telephone interview.

Much about the conference remains up in the air, including the date, the agenda, the timetable and the participants. Officials have said it should be held in June.

The U.S. is working to convince Syrian rebels to attend, and the Russians have been pressing Assad’s regime to take part as well.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry will extend a seven-day trip through the Middle East and Africa by one day to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday to discuss their joint initiative.

The opposition is deeply suspicious about Assad’s intention to hold serious peace talks, and the fact that the announcement was made by the Russians – Assad’s government has not issued a definitive statement of its own – added to the skepticism.

“We would like to hear from the spokesman of the Syrian government. Why is Russia speaking on behalf of Syria?” opposition figure Louay Safi said.

Assad has already indicated he will stay in power at least until the 2014 presidential election in Syria and has nothing to lose by agreeing to take part in the conference, or at least going through the motions.

While going along with an initiative proposed by his Russian allies and agreeing to participate, Assad gains more time to continue with his crackdown on the rebels.

The regime has been emboldened by recent successes in the war, including advances in the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.

Kerry made clear at a “Friends of Syria” conference in Jordan this week that more aid to the rebels would be coming if the regime refuses to cooperate with an international effort to form a transitional government. The U.S. is still reluctant to join those providing the rebels with lethal military aid, but some in the opposition are hoping that will change.

European Union foreign ministers plan a meeting Monday in Brussels to decide on whether to allow members to ship arms to the rebels.

Christopher Phillips, a lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London, said both sides believe engaging in diplomacy is the price for weapons.

“The voices of power on both sides believe they can win the conflict militarily,” he said. “With that as a starting point, it’s difficult to see to see how a peace conference is going to achieve the goals it wants.”

Kerry acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. “Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is,” he said Thursday during a visit to Israel.

Friday’s announcement came after days of talks in Moscow between Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and Russian officials.

“We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from the Syrian government in Damascus to participate in the international conference, in the interest of Syrians themselves, to find a political solution,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in televised remarks.

But he said it is impossible to set the date for the conference at this point because there is “no clarity about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have.”

The Syrian opposition has been plagued by divisions and infighting. While the rebels in the field and the hard-liners within the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, insist they will accept nothing less than Assad stepping down, others may be more willing to compromise on a phased transition.

Another point of contention could be who will attend the conference. Assad is not expected to attend, and the opposition is likely to bject to some of the names he puts forth as his representatives.

The Syrian National Coalition is currently discussing its position at a gathering in the Turkish city of Istanbul. But members have said they want guarantees that Assad’s departure is foremost on the agenda.

The U.S.-Russia plan aims to establish the outlines of a transitional government and an open-ended cease-fire.

Washington, along with key European and Arab supporters of Syria’s opposition, said Wednesday that Assad must relinquish power at the start of a transition period. Russia, however, has not committed to Assad’s departure, and the Syrian leader has said he will not step down before his term ends next year, leaving open whether he would run for re-election.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, legislator Sharif Shehadeh confirmed the government intends to attend.

“The expectations and the opinion within the Syrian leadership is that it will most definitely attend the conference,” Shehadeh told The Associated Press.

He said there should be no preconditions by the opposition or the regime because “if we start off with preconditions, we will end up in failure, and this is something Russia is making clear to the opposition.”

Shehadeh added: “The success of the conference lies with the opposition, not the government.”

Agreement to attend the talks “in principle” is consistent with Syria’s policy of accepting initiatives to appease the international community, only to renege or bog them down in negotiations while government forces make gains on the ground.

At the Syrian National Coalition’s three-day gathering in Istanbul, an opposition figure expressed doubts over Moscow’s announcement, questioning why Damascus has said nothing.

“We are very supportive of the (U.S.-Russian) initiative. Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith,” Safi said.

Intense fighting continued Friday across Syria, particularly in the western Syrian town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon.

Government forces have been trying since Sunday to recapture the town, which lies at the heart of a government offensive to secure a strategic strip running from the capital of Damascus to the Mediterranean coast and Syria’s seaports.

The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, a staunch ally of Assad, has been assisting his troops in the fighting.

That has raised tension in Lebanon and contributing to weeklong fighting in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.

Lebanese supporters and opponents of Assad in the predominantly Sunni city have clashed in some of the worst fighting there in years. Security officials said the death toll since Sunday reached 25, including three soldiers.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said 200 people were wounded.

The city was quiet Friday apart from sporadic shooting, but small anti-Hezbollah protests erupted. The flags of Hezbollah, Russia and Iran were set on fire.

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